Live music is an integral part of Portland’s once thriving pre-COVID downtown scene. Now, the city’s live music venues, large and small, are either closed, closing, or are on the verge.
It’s been a bleak 2020 for nearly everyone, but live music venues have been especially hit hard. As is often noted, they were the first to close and will be the last to re-open.
Live Music: Fighting to Survive a Pandemic
When venue owners in Portland first closed their doors because of the pandemic, they thought it’d be for a month or two. Now, they’re anticipating more of a late summer 2021 opening at best.
The first blip of hope on the bleak-looking horizon came with a crowdfunding campaign built to save the nonprofit venue, One Longfellow Square. Reaching its six-figure goal in fairly short order proved that Portlanders care about their live music, their local venues, and are willing to support their local music scene in hard times.
Those same venue owners began a weekly Zoom video conference to touch base, but they quickly went from hopeful to feeling an inevitable sense of despair. “When it became obvious this was going to drag out much longer, those depressing conversations turned into organization,” says Maine Music Alliance president, Scott Mohler, who took on the arduous responsibility of organizing and shepherding a significant effort toward helping Portland music and musicians survive.
The result is the Maine Music Alliance, which is working to save the Portland music scene in multiple ways, including a crowd-sourced GoFundMe fundraiser just launched this week with the goal to help multiple local venues survive. Blue, St. Lawrence Arts Center, Sun Tiki Studios, State Theatre, Geno’s Rock Club, Flask Lounge, The Apohadion, Mayo Street Arts Center, and possibly SPACE Gallery are some of the spaces that will be supported by the alliance, though that list is still being finalized.
“In the beginning, people in town were faced with choosing which venue to help, but we wanted them to be able to help everyone at the same time,” continues Mohler. “We’ve all worked so hard to build the scene up to what it is so letting it fall apart was really not an option.
“Our milestones right now are raising some level of money that is meaningful in terms of being able to help a venue stay open a week longer. We’re all not oblivious to the reality that we’re not going to be able to save everything and everyone. We’re just trying to do as much good as we can.”
The Maine Music Alliance’s goal, stated plainly, is: “We are a team of Maine music professionals and performers working to increase the awareness around the extraordinary live music venues of Portland and the tremendous impact their presence has in our local economy.
We aspire to aid in keeping our venues sustainable, our musicians creating, and our communities connected. We desire to gain recognition for the essential role our venues have played and continue to play in helping define the culture as it exists in Portland today. Member venues collectively provide thousands of jobs, millions of dollars in revenues, charitable donations, and taxes.”
The $250,000 GoFundMe campaign will send every penny donated directly to the venues as they fight to stay open or re-open when it’s time. From rent to pandemic-compliant safety protocols, these funds will be dispersed to venues for specific needs as opposed to unspecified spending. Bottom line, every donation will help Maine’s music community survive and thrive. As Maine Music Alliance notes, “Our industry is based around the idea of bringing people together for shared communal artistic experiences and our industry is in real trouble.”
No Help On the Horizon
A lack of local, state, and national help for the music industry has left musicians and venue owners feeling abandoned, as they’ve been working hard to survive in a tough industry even before the pandemic.
“Our jobs have been taken away from us with no outside help,” says PHOME owner, Ken Bell. “We’ve gotten zero support since March and it’s discouraging for the artists, the people who run sound, the bartenders, and club owners. Live music venues foster local businesses. For instance, there are multiple restaurants on Congress Street that weren’t there 10 years ago thanks in part to The State Theatre. The same goes for other parts of the city.”
Bell finds it “disappointing that the politicians don’t see that and help us so that we can continue helping others.” Relating some of his own personal experience, Bell says “I knew September was my turning point from day one. My wife and I set a dollar figure as to how much we were willing to lose by then.
“Closing was an option, but so many local musicians came to me and said, ‘It’s not about you, it’s about us.’ Multiple people suggested a GoFundMe and I kept saying no, but when it came time to cut our losses or go with crowdsourcing, musicians pulled me to the side and asked me not to close, then they started the GoFundMe.” (You can find the PHOME GoFundMe HERE.)
Bell notes around 60-70% of shows at PHOME feature local musicians. “They’ve given me so many front row seats to awesome local music over the years, I just couldn’t leave them behind.”
Obviously, there is no normal right now and venue owners aren’t looking to crowd the city with visitors, but that day will come and if live music venues are closed, there will be less of the awesomeness we’ve come to know and love here in Portland. Hopefully, as Bell says, we won’t leave anyone behind, be they venue owners, musicians, or fans.
Music Economics 101: Portland, Maine
Maine is all about it’s makers and supporting the local economy and the community. These venues aren’t funded by big out-of-state money. Rather, they’re kept alive by Mainers buying tickets, as are the businesses surrounding crowd-creating venues like The State Theatre.
It’s also difficult for music venues to pivot, as has helped in some other industries. For example, restaurants offering take-out food and cocktails and outdoor dining (while the warmer weather lasts). “We’re not restaurants, we can’t do curbside or take-out,” says Bell. “We’re doing the best we can, but there’s not a lot we can do for now.”
While the power of music to a community is an emotional and spiritual asset, it’s also an economic boon in multiple ways and not one that benefits only a few. The Maine Music Alliance points out that not only does live music represent an important economic contribution to our local economy, it’s a key element to keep dollars coming into our community in a continuous and culturally enriching kind of way.
“Collectively, we are one of the biggest employers in Portland,” their GoFundMe page reads. “We generate millions of dollars in both direct and indirect revenue. This city has become a desired stop on many tours that would never have headed up this way before, and in addition to the businesses that benefit, mainstay music fans and supporters here have helped make this happen and many are ready to get out to a show again as soon as it’s safe and IF there are still venues to host said show.”
“Our fans are recognized as the lifeblood that keeps venues, musicians, and the industry as a whole resilient day after day, year after year,” writes the Maine Music Alliance. “Now, our venues need you more than ever.”
The struggle is real, but there is hope, says Bell: “It just feels good to be here and see my friends play music. In a strange way, this has reinvigorated my passion for music. People are volunteering and trying to be a part of saving live music in Portland. Every venue owner is in a different boat, all facing different levels of loss but all facing loss.”
A Working Musician’s Take
The importance of live music means different things to different people: the connection we feel to the music and the musicians, the community interaction we participate in at shows, and/or the feeling of vibrancy and excitement when a big act pulls into town and starts unloading at the State Theatre.
“What happens between musician and artist at a live show is an energy transfer through the intimacy of the experience and when people are feeling it right next to you, that transfer becomes much more viable,” says Portland songwriter and touring musician Will Bradford (SeepeopleS & The Worst), who also performs at many venues in town and on the road. “There’s a feeling of communion and community at a show. That’s a hard thing to replicate in the format of social distancing and listening to concerts in your car via an FM transmitter.”
It’s not just about the effect music has on the individual, but also about sustaining the livelihood of Maine musicians, their music, and the community at large. The revenue produced for nearby restaurants and bars, and the many other businesses that receive a boost when visitors are filing into Portland on a nightly basis to see live music, is more than significant.
For his part, Bradford thinks the only way mid-sized venues and musicians without a massive revenue-producing career in place are going to get any real help is on the local level.
It needs to happen, he says. “The problem is so all encompassing that to put all our hopes in a large national effort for saving smaller and mid-size venues in our own communities could be misguided. It is utterly imperative that we think locally and support the community by supporting the venues that cater to live music within those communities.”
Bradford notes he’s already donated to the GoFundMe specifically for PHOME and will be doing the same for the Maine Music Alliance soon. He appreciates national efforts like Red Alert Restart and legislative forays like Save Our Stages and, while all these initiatives play a part, Bradford believes the real work will happen locally.
“I think what Maine Music Alliance is doing is fantastic,” says Bradford. “They understand that [at the] end of the day, saving live music and the arts in general is a community responsibility. I think the Maine Music Alliance is an innovative concept that will essentially be imitated and executed in different communities, which would be great.
“The more we don’t feel alone, the more connected we feel, the more powerful we’ll all be when it comes to saving live music in Portland. The big music and events companies will survive. There’s always somebody to put up large amounts of money to keep those places open, but that’s not how local music scenes work.
“[Local scenes] thrive in small and mid-size venues with tight budgets and who’ve earned loyalty from the community they serve. They are the ones that need our help, and Maine Music Alliance is providing an essential outlet for this to happen and I hope this is a model that catches on,” finishes Bradford.
The stakes here are very real for those invested in making music happen. Whether you feel like you need these live music venues as much as they need you or if you just recognize the importance of live music to the culture and economy of Portland, please consider donating. Let’s save the Portland music scene as we know it.